What is Human Scabies?

J.M. Willhite

Human scabies is a contagious skin condition attributed to the presence of a mite known as Sarcoptes scabiei. Causing dermal irritation and inflammation, human scabies can pose a serious risk in individuals of advanced age or those with chronic medical conditions. Treatment for human scabies is centered on medication to eliminate the presence of Sarcoptes scabiei-related mites. Additional medication may be necessary for individuals who do not respond well to traditional, topical treatments.

Scabies is caused by the microscopic organism sacoptes scabiei which burrows underneath the skin to deposit its eggs.
Scabies is caused by the microscopic organism sacoptes scabiei which burrows underneath the skin to deposit its eggs.

Sarcoptes scabiei is a microscopic organism that burrows beneath the skin to deposit its eggs. Within a few weeks, new mites emerge to carry on the process by traversing one's skin to find another area to burrow into and deposit eggs. Though any living creature may become infested with scabies, including dogs and cats, the organism that seeks a human host is of a different mite species. The presence of the parasitic Sarcoptes scabiei within the human body induces an allergic reaction that presents as pronounced irritation and inflammation.

A diagnosis of scabies is generally be made following a visual and physical examination by a qualified health care provider. The tell-tale signs of a scabies infestation, such as red streaks and blisters, induce characteristic, patterned irritation and inflammation. Some physicians may order that a skin sample be obtained from an irritated area to confirm the presence of Sarcoptes scabiei.

When someone develops scabies, he or she may exhibit a variety of signs and symptoms. Generally, the dermal irritation and inflammation will flare at night when the person is at rest. Characteristic tracks may appear in and around areas where folds in the skin are most prominent, such as between fingers and toes, around the knees, and under the armpits. As infestation worsens, blisters and rash-like irritation may present in additional areas, including on one’s back, waist and soles of the feet.

Individuals with an existing medical condition, such as certain cancers, are considered at a greater risk for developing more severe presentations of scabies, known as crusted scabies. Those who develop this condition often present with patches of scaly skin that spread without aggressive treatment. Additionally, individuals with scabies can develop secondary dermal infections due to persistent scratching that causes dermal lacerations.

Treatment for human scabies generally involves the use of topical medications that are applied for several weeks to ensure that the infestation has been eliminated. The contagious nature of human scabies generally necessitates that all individuals within the same dwelling as an infected person also be treated to prevent re-infestation. Household items, such as sheets, quilts and bedding, as well as clothing, should be thoroughly cleaned to ensure the removal of mite eggs and reduce the chance for re-infestation.

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